Skip to content

Groundhog Day

September 1, 2015

GDThe main character is named Phil (so is the groundhog) is forced to re-live the same day over and over, for what seems like about a year, in a search for himself and the meaning of life.

the sacrament of the present moment. “If you only had one day to live, what would you do?”

At first Phil loves his curse, using his newfound knowledge to seduce women; but eventually he realizes that knowing you’re always going to win is a terrible thing. Living without moral consequences is fun for a while, but it deadens the soul. Soon Phil comes to regret what it is to be “a god”—he has “killed himself so many times he feels like he doesn’t even exist anymore.”-He decides to start telling the truth in the hope that it will set him free, but finds that you cannot “use” morality to get what you want. Only when he is motivated by love rather than self-interest can his life start again.

the old homeless man whom Phil first ignores, then helps, then regrets being unable to save is symbolic of injustice – but there is no critique of the system that put him the gutter in the first place.

The New York Times: “has become a curious favorite of religious leaders of many faiths, who all see in Groundhog Day a reflection of their own spiritual messages.” A professor at NYU shows it in her classes to illustrate the doctrine of samsara (the endless cycle of rebirth Buddhists seek to escape), while a rabbi in Greenwich Village sees the film as hinging on mitvahs (good deeds). Wiccans like it because February 2nd is one of the year’s four “great sabbats,” while the Falun Dafa sect uses the movie as a lesson in spiritual advancement.

February 2nd in the liturgical calendar is the Feast of Candlemas, that commemorates the presentation of Christ in the Temple 40 days after his birth. The aged Simeon declared the infant Jesus a “light for the revelation of the gentiles.” Simeon’s prophecy led to a folk belief that the weather of February 2nd had a prognostic value. If the sun shone for the greater part of the day, there would be 40 more days of winter, but if the skies were overcast, there would be an early spring. The badger was added later in Germany, but the Germans who emigrated to Pennsylvania could only find what native Americans in the area called a wojak, or woodchuck. Since the Indians considered the groundhog a wise animal, it seemed only natural to appoint him, as we learn in the movie, “Seer of Seers, Sage of Sages, Prognosticator of Prognosticators.”

The ground of Groundhog Day, in other words, is Catholic. And just as our secular celebration of the day unwittingly echoes a deeper truth about the Light revealed to the gentiles, so too does the movie unwittingly point the way back to that truth.


Do not be deceived, God is not mocked.

For whatever a person sows, that he will also reap.

For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap


but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal


And let us not grow weary in doing good,

for in its own time we shall reap a harvest if we do not give up.

So then as we have time, let us do good to all persons,

and especially to those of the household of faith.

The expression kairos idios (“in its own time”) in the final verse of this passage from Galatians implies there are moments that are appropriate, distinctive, and non-repetitive, designed by God for the harvest. Translations like the Revised Standard Version render this “in due season.” In the world as God intended it, we do not go on planting a crop day after day, or cultivating and weeding day after day. For planting is followed by cultivating and nurturing and then by harvesting. Time is going somewhere because God intends it so. But Phil Connors is out in Punxsutawney, PA, for the fourth year in a row, watching the same groundhog come out of the same hole, and seeing the same people in the same celebration. He is bitter and cynical, as contemptuous of his colleagues on the camera crew as of the citizens of Punxsutawney. His orientation leads him to view the yearly celebration of the groundhog’s emergence as a sign that there is really no “tomorrow.” There is no “proper time,” no “due season” for moving on. This throws his whole life into a tailspin. He discusses this burden with some fellows at the bar early in the film: “What would you do if you were stuck in one place, and every day was exactly the same, and nothing that you did mattered?” The guys at the bar look off into the distance for a moment and then one of them says, “That sums it up for me.” Their lives also had no kairos idios, no “proper time” for moving on past planting and cultivating into some kind of fulfillment, into the harvest. They feel they are stuck on a treadmill for the rest of their lives. To use Paul’s language, they have devoted their energies “sowing to the flesh” and now they are “reaping the corruption” of emptiness. Does Groundhog Day throw light on this link between time and flesh, between sowing and reaping through “doing good?” Let me begin the exploration by sketching the method I am employing in this particular exploration of film and theology…. In the last 50 years scholars have made much of two Greek words for time found in the New Testament: chronos meaning linear time, from which o(r word “chronology” comes, and kairos, meaning the “appointed time” or the “time for decision”. The standard Greek term for cyclical time as chronos, with the same hour appearing each day, moving as relentlessly as PM Connors’ schedule, waking with that same six o’clock alarm every morrow and going through the same routine each day. Through the miracle of film, the same day is repeated over and over again like a recurrent nightmare. The weathercaster goes to the town in Pennsylvania to a Groundhog Day celebration that happens day after day. He steps into the same pothole with icy water, has the same conversation with the same people, and celebrates the same stupid groundhog coming of the same hole. As Jonathan Romney writes, this film “may be the nightmare movie Hollywood has ever produced — potentially endless repetition, just for its own sake” This is chronos in painful form.

Phil Connors finally gives up on the cycle of manipulation through the flesh, and begins to help other people. At first he gives the beggar a tip, then a meal, then a rescue from freezing on a bitterly cold night. He learns to run fast enough to save the life of a boy falling from an apple tree; he learns the Heimlich maneuver so he can save the life of a man choking on a bone in the restaurant; he fixes a flat tire for some vulnerable older women; he helps a squabbling couple to find a resolution. These episodes led several reviewers to refer to the Capraesque quality of Groundhog Day. For instance, Audrey Farolino writes: “The movie’s premise is rather Kafkaesque, but its message is more Capraesque: Even if you’re stuck in the same place with the same people doing the same things every day, you can find salvation of a sort through little acts of kindness and selflessness.”.

Although it is possible to contend that Connors “seems to become a better person more out of boredom than anything else” (Thompson 1993: 50), viewing the film through the lens of Galatians allows us to suggest that these actions indicate that Phil Connors has finally grasped the true nature of love and the need to stop playing god, which is the ultimate form of living according to the flesh. Early in the film he had snarled in response to a mildly critical comment from a co-worker, “I make the weather,” and it becomes clear “time will be out of joint until he realizes that actually it’s the weather that makes him”.

Later in the film, he abandons the stupid declaration to Rita, that since he keeps coming back from death, “I’m a god … I am immortal.” Rita had replied with scorn, “Because you survived a car wreck?” She falls back on her 12 years in a good Catholic school to deny that Phil or anyone else can rightfully claim to be God. And it is only when he gives up this final illusion of apotheosis that he can begin, in Paul’s words, “working for the good of all.” The consequence is that Rita, who embodies the moral center of this film, decides that Phil is a decent human being after all, allowing a romantic, happy ending to a crazy but insightful film.

The links to Galatians are obvious. “Doing what is good” in 6:9 is “identical with the concepts of the ‘fruit of the Spirit’ (5:22-3) and of ‘following the Spirit’ (5:25; c.f. 5:16).”. The reference to not growing “weary” in doing good reflects Paul’s fear that the enthusiasm for life in the spirit is waning, that the Galatian converts “were beginning to revert from an outgoing type of Christian faith that seeks the welfare of others to a selfish, self-contained religious stance that has little concern for others”.

The social context for this kind of “doing good” is stressed in 6:10: “Therefore, while we have time, let us do good to all, especially to those of the household of faith.” The primary responsibility of these early Christians was local; most of them had very limited means and time. Their primary responsibiity was to care for the members in their small households of faith.’ This needs to be understood within the framework of early Christian communalism and cooperation within the house and tenement churches, the small “families of faith” that marked the early church. This involved early Christians in seeking the good of all in good times as well as times of famine and disease, countering the despair of a cyclical life that goes nowhere. The “eternal life” of 6:8 begins now for the Galatian Christians, because Christ frees them from the treadmills of the flesh.

The exhortation of 6:9-10 emphasizes that each Christian group, enlivened by the spirit, has “time” to fulfill their lives. The echo of Groundhog Day is particularly clear in the wordplay on the word “time” (kairos) in verses 9 and 10. At the “proper time” we will reap the harvest in verse 9. “So then, as we have time, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the household of faith.” I regret that this echo of the word “time” does not show up in modern translations of the Bible, but it was clearly visible in the original Greek text, and it provides the resource to understand the deepest meaning of the film — and of the daily routines of modern life. Our times may seem to be the same day after day, stuck in chronos, but if we look around, there are fresh opportunities to love every day we live. New people cross our paths; new problems arise for those within the church; nev challenges face us as times change in the fast moving worlds of work and social responsibility. This correlates closely with the “deeper message” al Groundhog Day, perceived by Richard Corliss: “It says that most folks’ lira are like Phil’s on Groundhog Day: a repetition, with the tiniest variations, ritual pleasures and annoyances. Routine is the metronome marking most al our time on earth. Phil’s gift is to see the routine and seize the day”.

The key issue, however, in the light of Galatians is not so much seizing rite day in an opportunistic manner but rather overcoming the illusions that times and seasons can be brought under human control, that others can be mastered and seduced to suit our own rhythm and ego needs. The “life lesson, a story of self-discovery and change” of the film as well as Galatians 6 centers on the need to turn away from the illusions of the flesh. And while it remains on the fairy-story level in the film, with an undeniably amoral premise that one can “do horrible things to other people with impunity, because the next day it’ll all be undone”, the reference in Gal. 6:8 to the spirit indicates a more serious possibility of living in the kairos of fulfilled time. The spirit leads the followers of Christ off the treadmill. It frees them from their culturally shaped bondage to selfish love. Thus Paul calls the Galotian Christians to discover new forms of “doing what is right” and “working for the good of all … while we have time.” Both in the film and in Paul’s mind, that is the most important indicator that someone is, in fact, unstuck in time. But to use an allusion in Matthew Giunti’s review in Christian Century, the continued unwillingness of the American public to “roll up its sleeves and take a crack at a few of the country’s enduring social problems” indicates that most of us remain stuck. And as with other cultures in the past and present, a price will inevitably be paid for such illusions.

Explorations in Theology and Film: Movies and Meaning – ed. Clive Marsh & Gaye Ortiz Pp. 155f

Phil: Well, what if there is no tomorrow? There wasn’t one today.

Phil: What would you do if you were stuck in one place and every day was exactly the same, and nothing that you did mattered?

Ralph: That about sums it up for me.

Rita: [Phil has described several people in the diner] What about me, Phil? Do you know me too?

Phil: I know all about you. You like producing, but you hope for more than Channel 9 Pittsburgh.

Rita: Well, everyone knows that!

Phil: You like boats, but not the ocean. You go to a lake in the summer with your family up in the mountains. There’s a long wooden dock and a boathouse with boards missing from the roof, and a place you used to crawl underneath to be alone. You’re a sucker for French poetry and rhinestones. You’re very generous. You’re kind to strangers and children, and when you stand in the snow you look like an angel.

Rita: [in wonder] How are you doing this?

Phil: I told you. I wake up every day, right here, right in Punxsutawney, and it’s always February 2nd, and there’s nothing I can do about it.

Phil: I think people place too much emphasis on their careers. I wish we could all live in the mountains at high altitude. That’s where I see myself in five years. How about you?

Rita: Oh, I agree. I just like to go with the flow. See where it leads me.

Phil: Well, it’s led you here.

Rita: Mm hmm. Of course it’s about a million miles from where I started out in college.

Phil: You weren’t in broadcasting or journalism?

Rita: Uh unh. Believe it or not, I studied 19th-century French poetry.

Phil: [laughs] What a waste of time! I mean, for someone else that would be an incredible waste of time. It’s so bold of you to choose that. It’s incredible; you must have been a very very strong person.

Phil: I was in the Virgin Islands once. I met a girl. We ate lobster, drank pina coladas. At sunset we made love like sea otters. That was a pretty good day. Why couldn’t I get that day over and over and over?

To return to the home page, click on the header at the top of this page.


From → Film

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: